Despite an intriguing premise in which the architect of a housing project is confronted by a resident-turned-activist who wants his help in getting the place torn down, Matt Tauber's "The Architect" feels schematic and contrived, like a game of four-square between Ibsen, Le Corbusier, a television executive and the Chicago Housing Authority.
Anthony LaPaglia plays Leo Waters, a master builder type whose imposing North Shore house is a hive of upper-middle-class dysfunction. His son Martin (Sebastian Stan) has just dropped out of college and returns home hoisting a festering bolus of filial resentment. His 15-year-old daughter Christina (Hayden Panettiere) has recently -- and apparently much to her family's surprise -- gone through puberty, provoking remarks from Martin about just what Dad is looking at. His wife, Julia (Isabella Rossellini), is a stay-at-home lulu who spends her frustrated days furiously scrubbing the refrigerator and rearranging apples.
Would that Tonya (Viola Davis) had their problems. Her son died a few years earlier, and she has funneled her grief into action, starting a petition to have the gang-controlled towers where she lives torn down. Stonewalled by residents and the authorities alike, she tracks down Leo at one of his university lectures, where he has dragged a reluctant Martin and Christina. Leo, who has never visited the projects he designed, initially rejects her request, but Martin is intrigued and soon ventures into the projects. There he meets a young gay man named Shawn (Paul James) who reads Tolstoy, listens to country music and longs to escape his environment.
Based on a play by Scotsman David Greig, "The Architect" retains a theatrical, symbolist tone -- Julia feverishly tries to rid her garden of worms, Leo rearranges stones outside his glass house to make a rock garden -- embalming its characters in representation.
LaPaglia soldiers through the role, but as a successful white man, Leo is so burdened by the world's ills that it leaves him little room to act. Rossellini, Stan and Panettiere act out the damage inflicted by his nonspecific harm as cliches of the suburban family drama while their ghetto counterparts suffer the consequences of his arrogance.
In the world Tauber has created virtue is allotted by class. Tonya's own family is divided -- to get the girl out of the projects, daughter Cammie (Serena Reeder) has been sent to live with the family of a doctor, and the experience has made Cammie ashamed of her background. Tonya's other daughter is a single mother who spends her days ignoring her baby and watching TV.
Leo's kids, meanwhile, look for love in all the wrong and unlikely places. Christina, in the grip of the mother of all daddy issues, tries to seduce a trucker who rescues her when she gets into trouble at a bar. The scene is squirmingly uncomfortable, not to mention hard to buy. Despite the suggestion that Leo has been lavishing her with "inappropriate" attention, there's little to motivate her behavior.
LaPaglia and Davis manage to give credible performances, but Rossellini is wasted in a fusty cliche that elicits very little empathy. She takes her anger out on the worms and the dishes, but fails to notice her daughter's pain.
"The Architect" might have been an interesting look at the ways idealistic experiments in community-building fail the individuals who are subjected to them. As it is, it's a grim little exercise in exorcising middle-class guilt.
MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 Pico Blvd. at Overland Avenue. (310) 281-8223.